Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino knows the challenge he has in front of him one day before his side takes on Manchester City in the Premier League. Pep Guardiola’s Citizens are top of the table with a bullet, 11 points above their nearest competitor, Manchester United, and 18 points above Spurs in the table.
Even so, Pochettino thinks his team can win. After all, Spurs were the team that snapped City’s last big winning streak last season. Could the same thing happen again tomorrow at the Etihad?
“People consider us to be a good team and believe in us, to be a contender to stop Manchester City. Today it's a good point. It's a good signal. It's important to look at and understand that in the last three years we improved a lot and back then nobody thought we could challenge the teams at the top of the table. Only it was to reduce the gap with the top four.
“Now we are involved in the last two seasons with the best teams at the top of the Premier League. Look what you say now, 'oh it's a lot of people who think that only Tottenham can stop Manchester City'. It's so good to hear. Now we need to deliver that and do our job and show that we deserve that compliment.”
City are rolling right now. They are undefeated in the league, and winners of their last 15 straight, a Premier League record. Some are even whispering that they may be the best club team in Europe right now. That makes the prospect of taking them on at their home ground all the more difficult, but Pochettino thinks his Spurs side isn’t awed by the occasion.
“There's always motivation to play this type of game. It's the type of game where you don't need to motivate the players, you don't need to talk to much. You can feel in the atmosphere after the Brighton game that they're so excited. For be, it's about enjoying it. You want to be there, you want to feel what happens on the touchline, feel what happens on the pitch. We're going to play, for me, the best team today in Europe, not only in England. Because they're in their best form. It's so exciting. It's a massive challenge - the type of challenge you always want the possibility to have.”
And at some level, who would doubt that Spurs can do it? Tottenham’s Champions League campaign has proven that they can take on the biggest teams in Europe. While their league form has been less scintillating and Pochettino has won only once in his last 17 away encounters against the top six, there’s always the possibility that Spurs can put together a really strong result against a very good side.
The result against Real Madrid against the Bernabeu may provide the template for how Spurs may approach City. Pochettino started Fernando Llorente as a target man alongside Harry Kane in that match, and his side were effective in sitting deep and countering with pace. However, that match included Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez, neither of which Spurs will have at their disposal against City.
Michael Caley posits in a blog post today that Spurs’ chances may come down to how well they control midfield. His suggestion is that the way to stop City is to nullify as much as possible the threat of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Press the middle, defend for your lives, counter when possible, and pray.
Pochettino, however, is keeping his tactics close to his vest, though he doesn’t rule out playing on the counter.
“We're going to play in a way that we believe we can win. Every manager thinks when they design their strategy to play, it's always the right strategy. Doesn't matter if you put one or another player with different characteristics in the XI, or play with a different shape. The most important is the mentality and the ideas you have and try to translate to the players. It's not that we need to be brave -- we need to behave like always, we need to think like always. We can win, we can play, we can enjoy and develop what we want.
“Then, of course, it's about power. It's the opponent that tries to do what they want to do. Then it's about playing and try to dominate and try to play in the way that sometimes you can. First of all, our idea is always to try to dominate, play in the way that we want and try to play in the opposite half. And then it's football and anything can happen.”
Nobody has done it yet — not Arsenal, not Manchester United. Maybe nobody will. But Pochettino thinks that Spurs have about as good a shot as anyone in the opening half of the season. That’s enough for a little bit of optimism, right?